Rosalyn Eves is a (mostly) stay-at-home mom to two young children, currently living in Southern Utah with her chemistry professor husband. She has a BA in English from BYU and an MA and PhD in English from Penn State, which she puts to use by teaching the occasional composition class at a local university. In the little spare time that she has she reads, writes, occasionally runs, and generally avoids housework.
I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of place: places I love, like the Montana mountains of my childhood, the sunflower studded fields of my mission, the temple. And places I dislike, like the lines in Wal-Mart, the dirty streets after a long overdue spring thaw. But mostly, I’ve been thinking about the scriptural injunction to “stand in holy places.”
Why this obsession with place? Some of it comes from my current struggle to find my place in a new ward and a new community: I am constantly confronted by unfamiliar spaces. Some of it comes from the work I did in graduate school on rhetorics of space, which is a fancy way of saying that I spent a lot of time thinking about how different places affected the options some nineteenth-century women had for speaking publicly. But it also comes from a sense that understanding the places that we live is critical to understanding who we are and how we can more consciously shape who we want to become.
Because places carry with them certain expectations for the way we should behave in those places and the relationships with others that we form in those places, places can have a profound effect on our identity—or at least, on the particular expression of our identity in that place.
We talk a lot in the Church about our identities as children of God, daughters of God, but I think that this overarching identity can get obscured, sometimes, by the places (real and cyber) in which we find ourselves. For example, it’s hard for me to feel particularly divine as a frazzled mother dragging tired and grumpy children through the grocery store. In more public places, I take on other identities: part-time adjunct faculty at the local university, onlooker and observer at social functions where I still don’t know everyone. Online, I assume different roles as I click through various websites, becoming a chef, a thoughtful literary critic, a bargain shopper. Sometimes I’ve found myself in spaces where different aspects of my identity collide in uncomfortable and conflicting ways. I remember fighting the urge to hide as I pushed my son’s stroller through the halls of my graduate institution, where my role as a graduate student was in profound conflict with the role of a mother. (One of the faculty there told a friend of mine that having a child was like tying a millstone around your neck, a permanent burden destined to drag you down into ignorance and obscurity.) In all these places, although the root of who I am—my identity as a child of God—doesn’t change, my sense of it does.
So what about the idea of “standing in holy places?” Eliza R. Snow, in addressing a Relief Society congregation, told the women that “it is the duty of each one of us to be a holy woman.” I think that injunction still stands for us today. And I think that we find that role easiest to assume when we are not only engaged in holy acts, but standing in holy places. For example, in the temple, I find the most congruence between the role that place invites me to assume and my knowledge of who I really am.
Places don’t control who we are—but they do present invitations for who we can become. We choose how to respond to those invitations. Sitting in sacrament meeting with squirming children, I can choose whether to see that space as a stressful and unrewarding place, or I can try to respond to the presence of the Spirit and experience that place as holy, my unruly children notwithstanding. (This doesn’t mean, however, that this is always easy!) Understanding a place as a holy place, I think, allows us to more easily access our own holy roles, and to see the divinity of our other roles—as sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, teachers, and creators.
How then, do we stand in holy places? Where do we go? What places do we inhabit? How do we make the places that we regularly inhabit (our homes, offices, schools) more holy? Obviously, there are some places that we should just avoid. But there are some profane places that we have to enter, whether for work, service, or other causes. How can we keep sight of our holy roles even in places that don’t seem, on the surface, to invite the Spirit?